What is interesting about Glenn Miller is that he has endured. Miller's swing became so popular that folks are still listening to it today.
Miller's longevity is remarkable, but remarkable, too, is the initial brevity of his career. Miller stands as the archetypal big band for many, which considering he was recording for such a short period is pretty incredible. Standards that began with him are 'In the Mood' and 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' amongst many others.
In four years Miller became a huge sensation, and then dropped off the face of the earth (quite literally). Goodman paved the way, and Miller brought big band to it's broadest white audiences. Soon the black artists reclaimed the genre and took it to dizzying new heights. But, briefly, Miller was the flavor of the week.
Key tracks: In the Mood and American Patrol, which typify Miller's big band sound.
In the Mood
43. Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker is the super-star of bop. List off the first few jazz musicians that come to mind, and Parker stands a very good chance of being named.
And not, of course, without reason. Pre-bop jazz had two great fathers: Armstrong and Ellington. Bop, more or less attributable to Parker, launched everyone else. Miles and Trane came out of bop (after working with Parker). As jazz goes, bop is so fundamental many modern listeners would likely suggest it is the heart of jazz.
Parker was the first great saxophonist, and his talents set the high bar for all to follow. Culturally Parker was the musician of choice for the Beat counter-culture. His improvisation was very sophisticated stuff, from a theorist's point of view. He made the jazz musician an artist.
Key tracks: and Moose the Mooch (1946) and Just Friends (1950), which show off Parker in familiar territory and backed by strings.
Moose the Mooch
42. Stephen Sondheim
We often forget that the musical of today is an essentially American creation. Sondheim exemplifies the strength of such an assertion.
Paired with Bernstein he is responsible for West Side Story. On his own he has won more Tonys than any other composer, for such shows as Sweeny Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Into the Woods. Blending music and theater is as old as performance gets. Sondheim has kept this tradition relevant on Broadway for the second half of the century.
Sondheim didn't invent the musical, or sell the most tickets. But his songs have been a consistent and dependable source of entertainment for over 50 years. Few others on this list have such continuing relevance in their field.
Key tracks: Send in the Clowns (1973) and Something's Coming (1957), which show off his scoring and lyricism, respectively.
Send in the Clowns
41. The Beach Boys
"The Beach Boys showed the way, and not just to California." As American rock bands go none top the Beach Boys.
They were popular, and shifted the music of the country from the east to west coast. But once Brian Wilson got control of the studio they took it to a whole new level. Wilson saw the Beatles as upstarts and rivals. When they got creative with Rubber Soul and Revolver Wilson countered with Pet Sounds: blowing Paul McCartney away. (Who, incidentally, cites it as the best record ever.)
Everyone was blown away. Hardly a musician in the last fifty years who heard it wasn't inspired or stunned. The Beach Boys made the studio important in a way no one else had: not even Phil Spector's wall of sound offerings could compete. This was due in large part because Spector glorified the trite, while the Beach Boys evolved to real emotions and post-adolescent ideas.
Key tracks: I Get Around (1964) and God Only Knows (1966), which both have amazing harmonic power backing different stages of development.
I Get Around
40. Cole Porter
Porter is the first solely songwriter on this list. Yet to speak of the last century of American music and omit Porter... well!
Porter is one of Tin Pan Alley's best for a few reasons. First, he wrote his lyrics and music. Second, his songs are sophisticated and timeless. Third, his songs are also delightfully bawdy and irreverent. That's what makes them so timeless.
Porter's tunes have the smack of standard, which is unfortunate, but to be expected. Who wouldn't want a crack at one of the best? It's hard not to grow accustomed to his songs, they are so pervasive in the right circles. So long as their are cocktail bars and Broadway revivals I think Cole Porter is safe.
Key tracks: Anything Goes and I Get a Kick Out of You, which have become high-water marks of their class.
I Get a Kick Out of You